Golden Pints 2020
Well, this has been a sod of a year, hasn’t it?
If there has been one benefit to this year it’s been to force me to
concentrate on local beer, which is what I feel I should be doing more
of on this blog anyway.
Given that I haven’t been further than Partick since March, coming up with contenders for all the categories has been tough. I’ve resorted to using a couple from the arse end of 2019, which I think is fair enough as I didn’t post a Golden Pints last year anyway.
That’s what I’m going to start with:
Best collaboration brew: Obadiah Poundage by Goose Island with Derek Prentice and Ron Pattinson
Now I generally avoid collaboration beers nowadays. I am sure they are great fun for the brewers, but let's face it, they mash in with a hangover, and if the result of the experiment isn't as good as they hoped it would be, they are still going to sell the beer. The attempt by Goose Island to recreate 19th century London porter, though, involved a bit more advance planning than someone saying "let's put some mangoes and hazelnuts in it and see what happens." I would never pay silly money for a beer but somehow I forked out for a trip to London to try this, which amounts to the same thing (I justified it to myself by going to a few other places on the same trip). Huge amounts of effort were put into this by all involved, and Budweiser drinkers unwittingly financed the whole project, so perhaps big corporations are useful for something after all.
Best pub: The Laurieston
I passed by the Laurieston on the night in March the pubs were told to close. I didn’t go in. I wasn’t to know it would be months before I would be able to go in again. When I did, the welcome was as warm as ever and the beer as good as ever.
Best new pub: Calton Taproom
A first for me, I think, is that I have named a pub with no cask beer – and one which to my mind isn’t even really a pub. But the Calton Taproom, for the few weeks during which it was actually able to open, has stamped out a firm place in the beer desert of the east end. Service could be slow but the staff seemed enthusiastic when you could get their attention, and the beer list was cutting edge with beers from the newest micros who were homebrewers at the start of the year. Even better, the macro beers appear to subsidise drinkers of the indies.
Runner-up: Black Ruby opened in the improbable surroundings of the first floor coffee lounge of Fraser’s department store in December 2019. Although it was doubtless expecting to make its money selling champagne by the glass to suburban shoppers, it had a decent beer list focusing on local breweries. There was even the hope that once summer arrived it would be possible to have a few tables outside on Buchanan Street. We all know what happened then and since they never did much social media I have no idea whether Black Ruby will open up again #whenallthisisover.
Best pop-up beer garden: Glasgow Beer Works beer garden
The Glasgow Beer Works beer garden on Oswald St is not
the most prepossessing location, but in 2020 you made the best of the
opportunities you had. GBW themselves, formerly Merchant City Brewing,
changed their plans for a city centre facility and hence their name too –
perhaps just as well, as in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the
following re-examination of the legacy of slavery, Glasgow’s “Merchant
City”, built with tobacco and sugar money, appears less positive a
connection than it once did. Their beers are underrated and it is nice to see them in the city centre.
It was a summer of outdoor drinking, when we were allowed to drink at all, and if we hadn’t had the second lockdown since October it would have been interesting to see how long the sitooterie and the Scottish climate could have co-existed. We are the nation that invented going to the beach with a thermos flask of soup and a blanket, after all.
A fascinating phenomenon was the redefinition of “beer garden” in 2020. As a partisan of Bavarian beer culture, I am often disappointed by what is offered under this name in the UK, with not a chestnut tree, a stoneware mug or a radish in sight. Yet this year the label became even looser, and over the summer it seemed that merely a row of white plastic chairs on the pavement outside a pub was enough to be a “beer garden”. Nonetheless even this was a definite improvement for some pubs and it’s to be hoped that this trend will continue after all this is over.
Many people were understandably angry when restrictions were introduced which appeared designed to allow Wetherspoons to operate, while simultaneously closing down nearly everyone else. JDW’s flagship The Counting House took advantage of the closure of one side of George Square for a few weeks, and it’s the location of their two rows of picnic tables that nearly had them in the running. For the first time in a generation people could sit in Glasgow’s central square and enjoy a pint in the sunshine, without being crammed into a tiny space patrolled by uniformed “can’t take your drink past the barrier, mate” bouncers. Something which is perfectly normal in other European capitals, but in Glasgow is somehow only possible during a pandemic.
Glasgow’s restrictive approach to outdoor drinking is also the reason Glasgow Green doesn’t get a runner-up award as a pop-up beer garden. It would have been lovely to have got a takeaway from West Brewery and consume it at one’s socially distanced leisure in the park, if that had been allowed.
|If there were beer in the mug and I had drunk it, this would not have been allowed|
Best takeaway: RIDE BREWING CO
Out of all the ways in which breweries have sought to continue bringing beer to the consumer, the refillable growler has become my favourite. I have never thought that decanting cask beer into a container does it any favours, and have had disappointing experiences with flat bag-in-box. One of the more pleasant new habits has been dropping round to Ride Brewing Co, Glasgow’s first and only railway arch brewery (though now on their third arch) to get a couple of litres of their double dry-hopped IPA. It helps that they are also very close to the Karahi Palace, one of the city’s finest curry cafes – a factor that makes a difference when you’re trying to limit how often you leave the house.
Joint runners-up – and it’s not the first time I’ve been unable to rank one higher than the other, they’re both so good – are the shops we must now describe as stalwarts, Grunting Growler in Yorkhill and the Wee Beer Shop on the south side. Both have gone above and beyond what the authorities demanded of them to ensure customers’ safety, introducing click and collect and delivery services as necessary.
Best festival: CURFEW BEER FESTIVAL
I count myself fortunate to have been to one festival this year, and I am sure it would have been in the running anyway: the Curfew Winter Beer Festival in Berwick, back in February. Berwick is always worth a visit and especially when the Curfew micropub (a previous pub of the year winner) has one of its festivals on. One of these days I will get around to writing about Berwick properly.
I barely remember cask beer and for obvious reasons 2020 is the year I have drunk the least of it since I’ve been an adult. My first cask pint of the year was Mobberley 1924 Bitter at Blackfriars. I have never seen this beer before or since but since my notes say it would have scored 4/5 if it had been in slightly better condition, it is one of the front runners for 2020.
The most memorable pint of course was the Landlord I enjoyed at Babbity Bowster on the day pubs reopened after the first lockdown.
This has for various reasons been a year in which I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Scotch ale – it was when beer writers started groping towards the realisation that Scotch ale and Belgian Trappist beer are the same thing – so I am going to make it Cromarty Pibroch. Cromarty are better known for their hoppy beers, of course. Pibroch is a dark, 7% affair that tastes pretty much like Traquair House Ale. Just the job for this time of year, or February which is when I had it.
I am rather worried about the future of cask beer in Glasgow, which has a marginal existence at the best of times. Some pubs gave up on it entirely during the summer, hopefully only temporarily.
Best book: LARS MARIUS GARSHOL, HISTORICAL BREWING TECHNIQUES
Nothing in recent years has contributed so much to our understanding of farmhouse brewing as the groundbreaking work of Lars Marius Garshol, first on his blog and now finally in an English-language book. As far as I can make out, this is much more than a translation of his earlier work on Norwegian farmhouse ale, covering more locations and more recent research. What Garshol has done is not just explain how farmers brewed centuries ago with primitive equipment, but also show that there are places where these traditions are still alive.
There are still many mysteries, but just how much do you expect one man to solve? If you still think kveik is just a yeast that is good for making sludge IPAs quickly, you owe it to the rest of the world to read this book.
Research is tedious and arduous. It is much harder and takes much longer than writing a frothy puff piece about your mate’s brewery. Therefore my runners-up are both also historical works: Andreas Krennmair’s short book Vienna Lager, and Eoghan Walsh’s essays on Brussels beer, Brussels Beer City.
Best beer name: MURK FROM HOME (Magic Rock)
This year it was no contest as soon as this came out, really.
Best new brewery: SIMPLE THINGS FERMENTATIONS
When Phil Sissons opened up his small brewery Simple Things Fermentations at the end of 2019, his first public open day coincided with the day I left for the last foreign trip I had. Bad for me. Glasgow breweries seem to have a habit of opening late in the year, I don‘t know why.
Eschewing the love of New England IPA displayed by much of the Glasgow brewing scene, Phil has gone for classic styles in his first year. Some have been very impressive: the clean, crisp and mildly smoky Peated Pale and an excellent 80/– rich enough to pass as a Scotch ale. Best of all was a smooth, cocoa-y and sooty foreign extra stout. Phil has brewed, but not yet released, an imperial stout as well, and I am mildly excited at the prospect.
As far as I am aware, this is still the only regular beer column by a beer writer in a national daily paper. Most prefer to hope their wine writer is capable of turning in the occasional piece on beer instead (bad), get the staffer who drinks the most to do it (worse), or even run barely disguised puff pieces for retailers (worst of all). Only the Daily Star has a regular “Beer of the Week” piece, and although they give ATJ just a hundred words or so, that’s more than any of the supposedly highbrow papers devote to beer.
Well, that’s my round-up for 2020. Most of my drinking, in this year of deep crisis, has been consciously directed to local breweries that I want to survive. It is quite a novel feeling to treat buying beer as an economic lever rather than an indulgence, but this approach helps get over the shock of realising how much you spend on beer, which becomes much more apparent when you’re ordering in bigger chunks instead of the usual drip-drip-drip of a £4 pint here and a £3 half there.
Now, however, this post has been a long slog and I’m going to order that Harvey’s minicask that I’ve been eyeing up. See you next year.